I've been meaning to write a post about modesty for a while. One reason is that it's a topic on which I believe much woolly thinking is done. And the other is more self-serving: in conservative Catholic circles, modesty sells. You may have heard that sex sells, and this is true, but modesty is the sex of conservative Catholic blogging. Just look at the comments thread of something like Jimmy Akin's recent post explaining that no, it is not acceptable under Canon Law for a priest to refuse to give communion to a 14-year-old girl because she is wearing a spaghetti strap dress. 150+ comments later, the tide seems to be flowing against Mr. Akin's reason, and in favor of those who insist that a glimpse of shoulder is doubtless just what is needed to send any red blooded man to hell. (I'm quite willing to agree that such a dress is almost certainly not appropriate attire for mass -- I just disagree with a) refusing communion to someone for that reason and b) insisting that seeing a girl in a spaghetti strap dress is somehow a grave incitement to sin for all or many of the male congregants.)
I've always been annoyed, as a man, by this line of argument -- and not primarily because I don't want to give up the occasional sight of a well-formed shoulder blade or clavicle. Rather, it annoys me to hear other men claim that we are, as a sex, so completely controlled by our baser instincts that upon seeing a women in a spaghetti strap dress, we cannot help but to wallow in a desire to seize her roughly and have our way with her.
This isn't just a "I can hold my liquor so leave me alone and let me drink" kind of reaction. Rather, there is a certain kind of crassness, a debasement of all that is beautiful in the pursuit of avoiding lust, to which I believe many of us who are religious are prone to be tempted.
Lust is an ancient human failing, and yet one which took longer than many for us to properly understand. In his Theology of the Body, John Paul II writes that before the fall Adam and Eve were "naked and unashamed" not because of some sort of happy hedonism (as a modern "liberated" person might think of it), but rather because in their state of initial grace, Eve knew that Adam would not (when looking at her) objectify her as a tool for gratification rather than seeing her for what she was: a person, his wife, his friend, his lover.
After the fall, each spouse suspected the other of desiring to exploit (and both felt within themselves the desire to exploit the other) and so they were ashamed and clothed themselves.
Though ancient Israel was far from being without standards in regards to modesty (by modern standards they were positively Taliban-like) Lust is first clearly defined as serious sin (rather than simply a desire to commit a sin) by Christ when he says, "He who thinks impure thoughts about a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart."
If anyone needed proof that Christ was here to give us "difficult sayings" and not merely to provide psychologically comforting advice, this is it. The idea that simply thinking "impurely" could somehow be on a par with committing adultery has given many people sleepless nights ever since. What then does it mean to have impure thoughts?
Lust, the having of impure thoughts about another, seems to me to be different from simply noticing that someone is attractive to the eye or from appreciating that attractiveness. One may admire someone without lust. Admiration may even be in regard to those qualities which are generally thought of as sexual. Christ described lust as adultery of the heart, and I think that gives us a rather good direction to think in. Adultery is choosing to seek sexual satisfaction with someone other than your spouse. Lust is the attempt to gain sexual satisfaction from someone you're not having sex with. While the object of lust may never know that the sin takes place, lust is a sin of violation as well as impurity. The man who commits lust uses a woman as a tool for his satisfaction (or arousal) without her even knowing it -- a sort of mental incubus.
What, then, of modesty? We know that sin is a matter not merely of action but of will. Thus, if one tries to commit adultery but is turned down one's prospective partner in sin, one is morally just as guilty as if one had been successful. If propositioning someone is just as sinful as actually committing adultery, then intentionally inciting lust is in itself sinful, regardless of whether anyone is actually inspired to lust by one's actions.
If lust consists of "adultery of the heart" and the objectification of another, then inciting lust is behavior which intentionally seeks to achieve this result. Some examples are obvious: erotic dancing, posing for Playboy, etc. Other examples may be very culturally specific. In conservative Muslim or Hindu circles, even the long sleeved tee shirts and denim jumpers of the Catholic homeschooling set would look scandalous. And traditional female dress in sub-saharan Africa would be unacceptable for public venues even in our own notoriously skanky society.
The distinction between modesty and incitement to lust is not necessarily a matter of the quantity of skin exposed, or which skin is exposed. I think one could more successfully make the case that the swimsuit model to the right is behaving in a manner to incite lust than that the Venus of Urbino is -- though the model would merely attract attention if she went to a beach dressed like that, while the Venus would be arrested if she appeared thus in public. The Venus's nudity violates our cultural norms, which demand that certain parts of a woman's body be covered in public. Yet Titan's painting does not seek to cause lust. It shows the human body as a work of art and a thing of beauty, but not an object of lust. There is no "come hither" in the eye of Venus. Indeed, in facial expression, she looks more like a Madonna than a pagan goddess.
In guarding ourselves against lust, we must remember that God created not only our souls, but also our bodies, and that when he looked upon his creation "He saw that it was good." Because of this, we must avoid thinking of the human body as inherently evil or corrupting. Certainly, is is something capable of stirring powerful urges and emotions, and thus something which should not be mis-used. But there is not an inherent evil in bare shoulders, or indeed bare anything, to the extent that they are not used as sexual objects.
While we must guard against lust, in a society which does all too much to promote it and suffuses daily life with a discomforting mist of free floating sexuality, we must at the same time mind that we do not stray into the equal and opposite vice of prurience: that corruption of the mind which turns even that which is pure into an object of temptation and desire.
Thus, while good Catholic girls and women must avoid clothing and behavior that deliberately incites lust, good Catholic men must avoid falling into the trap of accepting the societal consensus that any sight of an attractive woman, attractively attired and made up, must necessarily inspire in any man who sees her either the desire to have sex with her, or at least the idea to think about doing so. If we accept this way of thinking about women and about beauty, we have already lost the battle against lust, and no degree of raving against bare soulders and long legs will mend the situation.